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D. H. Lawrence is one of the most prolific writers in English literary history. His major works include ten volumes of poetry, a collection of critical essays, four books of travel writings, several translations, and plays, in addition to the four novels (among others) for which he is popularly known. His most famous novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), brought him notoriety and further assured that he would be remembered as a novelist rather than a poet and short-story writer. After his novels, his most widely read and anthologized works are short stories and poems. In many of his works, Lawrence uses identical situations, plots, images, and themes.

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The subject and style of Lawrence’s works, of whatever kind, are so distinct and consistent that his name has given birth to an adjective, “Lawrentian,” to describe a way of looking at the world and a method for presenting it. The bold originality and powerful style of his early novels attracted the attention of upper-class British writers and intellectuals such as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and even the prime minister Herbert Asquith. Lawrence’s values, however, were not the same as theirs, and he spent most of his life as a nomad, searching for amenable landscapes and cultures. All of his works record that search and reveal its remarkable unity of purpose.

After Lawrence’s death, his critical reputation eventually declined, though his works continued to sell. Then, in 1955, the influential modern English critic F. R. Leavis published a study of the novels and declared Lawrence to be the most important writer of his generation and as good as Charles Dickens. He praised Sons and Lovers (1913) as the first honest treatment of the British working class. Also in 1955 the American critic Harry T. Moore published the first authoritative biography, The Intelligent Heart, introducing Lawrence to a public as fascinated by his life as by his work. His reputation is worldwide; in 1982, there were nearly three hundred titles pertaining to Lawrence translated into thirty languages.

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D. H. Lawrence was among the most prolific and wide-ranging of modern writers, a fact all the more remarkable considering that he spent so much time on the move, battling chronic tuberculosis, which cut short his life in his forty-fifth year. In addition to his novels, he published more than a dozen books of poetry, collected in The Complete Poems of D. H. Lawrence (1964); eight volumes of short fiction, including half a dozen novellas, collected in The Complete Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (1961); and seven plays, collected in The Complete Plays of D. H. Lawrence (1965). He also wrote a wide range of nonfiction, including four fine travel books: Twilight in Italy (1916), Sea and Sardinia (1921), Mornings in Mexico (1927), and Etruscan Places (1932). Movements in European History (1921), published under the pseudonym Lawrence H. Davison, is a subjective meditation on historical cycles and Europe’s decline, and Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) is a highly original and influential volume of literary criticism.

Lawrence’s religious vision, in the guise of a commentary on the Bible’s book of Revelation, is offered in Apocalypse (1931). Many other essays on diverse subjects appeared in periodicals during the last two decades of his life and were collected posthumously by Edward McDonald in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (1936), and by Warren Roberts and Harry T. Moore in Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works (1968). Lawrence was also a formidable correspondent, and his letters are invaluable aids to understanding the man and the writer. Some 1,257 of the more than 5,500 known letters are available in a collection edited by Harry T. Moore. Several of Lawrence’s fictional works—including Sons and Lovers, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Women in Love, and The Virgin and the Gipsy—have been adapted to the motion-picture medium, and his life is the subject of the 1981 film The Priest of Love.

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The running battle against censorship in which D. H. Lawrence engaged throughout most of his career undoubtedly performed a valuable service to subsequent writers and the reading public, though it cost him dearly both emotionally and financially. The essentially symbolic role of sexuality in his writing resembles somewhat that found in Walt Whitman’s, but Lawrence’s more overt treatment of it—liberating as it was to a generation whose Victorian upbringing had been castigated by the Freudians—led to a general misunderstanding of his work that persisted for almost three decades after his death. The thirty-year suppression of Lady Chatterley’s Lover backfired, as censorship so often does, attracting the public’s attention to the object of the prohibition. Unfortunately this notoriety made the novel, far from Lawrence’s greatest, the one most commonly associated with his name in the popular mind. His reputation among more serious readers was not helped by the series of sensationalistic memoirs published by some of his more ardent followers in the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Championed as a prophet of free love and utopianism, repudiated as a crazed homosexual and protofascist, Lawrence the artist all but disappeared from view.

The appearance of several serious and sympathetic studies of Lawrence in the middle and late 1950’s, by presenting a more accurate record of his life and a more discriminating assessment of his work, largely succeeded in salvaging Lawrence’s stature as a major writer. Among those most responsible for the Lawrence revival were F. R. Leavis, Harry T. Moore, Edward Nehls, and Graham G. Hough. Subsequent readers have been able to recognize more readily in the best of Lawrence’s work what Leavis described as its “marked moral intensity,” its “reverent openness before life.”

In addition to his prophetic themes, Lawrence’s technical innovations are now acknowledged as among the most important in modern fiction. He could convey a “ripping yarn” and portray lifelike characters when he chose, and parts of Sons and Lovers and The Lost Girl, among many other works, demonstrate his mastery of traditional realism in the representation of his native Midlands. More fundamentally, however, Lawrence’s novels are triumphs of mood and sensibility; they seek (as Frank Kermode has said) less to represent life than to enact it. He has no peer in the evocative rendering of place, introducing poetic symbols that carry the meaning without losing sight of their basis in intensely observed, concrete details.

Lawrence’s approach to characterization following The Rainbow was unconventional in that he avoided “the old stable ego” and pattern-imposed character types in an effort to go beneath the rational and articulate levels of consciousness to the nonhuman being in his characters. As Walter Allen has observed, for Lawrence “the value of peopleconsisted in how far mystery resided in them, how far they were conscious of mystery.” The linear, cause-and-effect development of characters controlled by the rational intellect was for him a hindrance. He focused instead on the surging, dynamic forces—sexual impulses, the potency of nature and animals, the terrible allure of death—that in their purest form defy rationality and are communicated by a kind of unmediated intuition.

His prose style was similarly subjective in emphasis. The frequent repetitiveness and inflated rhetoric can be tiresome, but at its best the prose is supple and sensuous, its dynamic rhythms incantatory, a powerful vehicle of Lawrence’s vision. Further, he avoided the neat resolution of closure of traditionalnarratives, typically preferring the “open end” in which the vital forces operating in his characters are felt to be continuously and dynamically in process rather than subdued by the authorial imposition of finality. His comment on the bustling activities of Indian peasants on market day, in Mornings in Mexico, epitomizes his fictional method as well as his vitalist doctrine: “In everything, the shimmer of creation and never the finality of the created.”

Lawrence’s approach to fiction involved considerable risks, and many of his novels are seriously flawed. There are those who cannot read him at all. Nevertheless, the integrity of his vision and the sheer power with which he communicated it have made E. M. Forster’s estimate (written shortly after Lawrence’s death) stand up: “He was the greatest imaginative novelist of his generation.”

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D. H. Lawrence’s productions reflect his artistic range. Accompanying his considerable body of poetry, the eleven novels published during his lifetime include Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915), Women in Love (1920), The Plumed Serpent (1926), and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928). He wrote almost continuously for literary periodicals in addition to publishing five volumes of plays, nine volumes of essays, and several short-story collections including The Prussian Officer, and Other Stories (1914), England, My England (1922), and The Woman Who Rode Away, and Other Stories (1928). His final works, including Apocalypse and Etruscan Places, appeared between 1930 and 1933, and more poetry, essays, and drafts of fiction have since been collected in Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D. H. Lawrence (1936) and Phoenix II: Uncollected, Unpublished, and Other Prose Works (1968). Several of Lawrence’s works, as well as Harry Moore’s biography, The Priest of Love, have been adapted for the screen. The Phoenix Edition of D. H. Lawrence was published in 1957; Viking has printed The Complete Short Stories of D. H. Lawrence (1961) and The Complete Plays of D. H. Lawrence (1965).

Achievements

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D. H. Lawrence’s work has consistently appealed to the adventurous and the perceptive. Ford Madox Ford, editor of the progressive English Review, printed Lawrence’s earliest poems and short stories there in 1911, recognizing beneath their conventional surfaces potent psychological and emotional undercurrents previously unexplored in British letters. Before Freud’s theories were widely known, Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers daringly probed the dangerous multilayered mother-son-lover triangle he had experienced in his own life. After his elopement, itself a scandal, Lawrence produced The Rainbow, seized by Scotland Yard in 1915 and publicly condemned for obscenity. Lawrence’s subsequent self-exile from England and his growing artistic notoriety came to a climax in the censorship trials of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Behind the alleged pornography, however, critics soon grasped Lawrence’s genuine ability to convey whatT. S. Eliot called “fitful and profound insights” into human behavior. Lawrence’s admirers also included Edward Garnett, John Middleton Murry, Richard Aldington, Amy Lowell, and Rainer Maria Rilke, although Virginia Woolf perhaps illustrated her generation’s ambivalence toward Lawrence most pungently: “Mr. Lawrence has moments of greatness, but he has hours of something quite different.” Lawrence’s own critical studies, particularly his pseudonymous Movements in European History (1921), and Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), reveal a singular blend of historical perspective and instinctive understanding appreciated only after his death. Once the laudatory memories and abusive denunciations had died out, Lawrence’s artistic reputation grew steadily, attributed generally to the craftsmanship of his short fiction and the uncompromisingly honest investigations of sexuality in his novels. As readers young in spirit increasingly observe, however, Lawrence’s greatest gift, his affirmation of life, shines most brightly in his poetry.

Discussion Topics

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How does D. H. Lawrence make his “problematic couples” happy?

As a critic, Lawrence expresses many of his literary convictions. Observe some of them in his book Studies in Classic American Literature.

Do we learn more about the Etruscan culture or about Lawrence in Etruscan Places?

Are Lawrence’s unsuccessful lovers primarily failures or victims of forces beyond their control?

Lawrence’s poetry often attempts to capture a revealing moment. How is this true of “Snake”?

What are the chief pitfalls of equating Paul Morel and his creator?

Bibliography

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Balbert, Peter. D. H. Lawrence and the Phallic Imagination. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. This book is a well-reasoned response to feminist critics, who, especially since the 1970’s, have accused Lawrence of misogyny. For “The Woman Who Rode Away,” Balbert gives a revisionist study that shows the causes for misreadings in other works.

Bell, Michael. D. H. Lawrence: Language and Being. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Discusses the development of Lawrence’s metaphysics not only in terms of his emotional life but also in terms of Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics. Although this study focuses primarily on Lawrence’s novels, its comments on his thought are relevant to his short fiction as well.

Black, Michael. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Fiction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986. In this sensitive study, Black discovers new layers of meaning in five of the eight stories that he examines. He rejects earlier psychoanalytic readings as too reductionist. As soon as critics characterized Lawrence’s works as oedipal, they went no further.

Ellis, David. D. H. Lawrence: Dying Game, 1922-1930. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) The third volume of the Cambridge biography of Lawrence links his writings with the incidents of his life; argues that more than most authors, Lawrence’s fiction was associated with his daily living. Discusses his fiction and revisions during the 1920’s, including his work on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and “The Rocking-Horse Winner.”

Flora, Joseph M. The English Short Story, 1880-1945: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Lawrence’s stories are placed in a historical literary context with their contemporaries. Though Flora offers no interpretations, he does effectively show Lawrence’s influences, how Lawrence absorbed and rejected early forms, and how his works both belong to and surpass their time.

Harris, Janice Hubbard. The Short Fiction of D. H. Lawrence. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1984. Harris’s book is the first to treat chronologically all Lawrence’s short fiction. Weak discussions of some works (for example “England, My England”) are more than compensated for by enlightening readings of others (such as The Man Who Died).

Jackson, Dennis, and Fleda Brown Jackson, eds. Critical Essays on D. H. Lawrence. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Various critical insights may be found in this collection of twenty essays, which includes articles by scholars and by well-known writers such as Anaïs Nin and Sean O’Casey. All literary genres in which Lawrence was involved are represented by one or more contributions here. Also of note is the editors’ introduction, which deals with trends in critical and biographical literature about Lawrence.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. D. H. Lawrence: Triumph to Exile, 1912-1922. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) Volume 2 of this three-part biography covers Lawrence’s life from his elopement with Frieda von Richthofen and the publication of Sons and Lovers up through World War I. Highly detailed account based on newly available Lawrence letters; discusses Lawrence’s relationship with Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, and others.

Maddox, Brenda. D. H. Lawrence, the Story of a Marriage. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Meyers, Jeffrey. D. H. Lawrence: A Biography. New York: Knopf, 1990. For a review of this work see Magill’s Literary Annual review.

Moore, Harry T. The Priest of Love: A Life of D. H. Lawrence. Rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. In preparing this first objective biography, Moore lived for several years at Lawrence sites and interviewed Lawrence’s family and friends. Moore’s work remains the standard source for accuracy and completeness.

Schneider, Daniel J. The Consciousness of D. H. Lawrence: An Intellectual Biography. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986. Tracing all the major works chronologically, Schneider treats Lawrence’s religious nature at all stages of his life. Nineteen stories, both early and late, are briefly analyzed to show how Lawrence shaped, over the years, his credo about kinds of consciousness and knowledge.

Squires, Michael, and Keith Cushman, eds. The Challenge of D. H. Lawrence. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. This group of essays, which deal both with individual works and with broader literary contexts, supplies some interesting and provocative insights. Of particular note is the first article, by Wayne C. Booth, a self-confessed “lukewarm Lawrentian” who maintains that Lawrence’s works are better appreciated upon rereading and reconsideration.

Thornton, Weldon. D. H. Lawrence: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1993. Makes a case for the technical skill, psychological depth, and thematic subtlety of Lawrence’s short fiction by focusing on his most important short stories. Argues that Lawrence’s work is always exploratory, a means of working through his own tentative ideas.

Widmer, Kingsley. The Art of Perversity: The Shorter Fiction of D. H. Lawrence. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1962. Widmer focuses on the satirical and demonic forces at work in the stories. While his conclusions have been weakened by later studies of Lawrence’s use of myth and psychology, the book remains a useful survey of many stories.

Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Early Years, 1885-1912. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. (See Magill’s Literary Annual review) The first volume of the Cambridge biography of Lawrence covers his childhood in Nottinghamshire and his years as a teacher in a London suburb. Offers new insights into his relationships with his mother Lydia, Jessie Chambers, Louie Burrows, Frieda Weekley, and other individuals who influenced his formative years.

Worthen, John. D. H. Lawrence: The Life of an Outsider. New York: Counterpoint, 2005. Written by distinguished Lawrence scholar, Worthen, this compelling, readable biography is accompanied by several photos.

Wright, T. R. D. H. Lawrence and the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A study of Lawrence’s use of biblical allusions and themes.

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